Director: Steven Soderbergh. Writer: Scott Z. Burns. Starring: Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne, Gweneth Paltrow and Jude Law. Rated: PG-13. Running time: 105 minutes.
I try to remain agnostic regarding genre, but I've never really understood the appeal of virus movies. People panic, fret, sneeze and talk it over, but when microscopic germs are to blame, it all becomes a waiting game to see which characters will next develop a cough. I prefer my Armageddon to involve flashier natural causes, such as earthquakes or giant radioactive lizards, yet here we have another vision of microbial oblivion, a disease procedural delivered with clinical precision and slick presentation by Steven Soderbergh.
This is sophisticated, 21st century filmmaking, with a probing techno score — yet there is an unmistakable '70s disaster flick feel about it. Contagion is so packed with concerned-looking celebrities, it resembles an emergency relief telethon. For the first hour or so, the film's principal virtue is you get to watch A-list actors foam at the mouth and keel over.
Victim No. 1 is Gweneth Paltrow, as a sick businesswoman on a flight back from Hong Kong, who stops off for a tawdry fling in Chicago, before heading home to her family in Minneapolis.
Along the way, every drinking glass, elevator railing and busboy she casually brushes up against become contaminated, and a deadly pandemic is born. Shortly, poor Gwennie ends up on a morgue slab with her brain being cut open, and her startled and grieving husband (Matt Damon) is left to pick up the pieces — and safeguard his surviving daughter (nicely played by Anna Jacoby Herron).
From here the movie fractures in multiple directions, globetrotting to follow multiple people trying to outrun, solve or exploit the virus. Kate Winslet is a tireless CDC field agent, who puts herself in harm's way trying to get a handle on the outbreak. Jude Law, slapping on fake teeth and an Aussie accent to play a sketchy Wikileaks-like blogger who thinks that the government is suppressing the truth about the spread of the virus, and trying to quash the homeopathic cure that he conveniently happens to be invested in. Marion Cotillard never breaks a sweat as an epidemiologist held hostage in a small Chinese village that's desperate for a cure. Laurence Fishburne is a nominal hero, as Winslet's capable but deeply conflicted boss, and the always-welcome Elliot Gould pops up in a cameo so brief it's almost perverse.
Director Soderbergh is pretty much incapable of making a simple thriller, even when he's hemmed in by genre constraints, and Contagion bears a heavy metaphoric payload. As the body count piles up, the key to survival becomes maintaining "social distance," staying inside, keeping away from strangers — and everything from cell phones to airplane seats to keyboards to doorknobs. All the tethers that unite us in an ever more intimate and smaller planet, these are all suddenly instruments of mass destruction.
Contagion is too scattered to be really emotionally resonant, despite some excellent performances, as the audience is kept at a safe distance. After scaring us silly with alarmist rhetoric and conspiratorial paranoia, the film tries to play it both ways and takes a swift turn into raw sentimentality. Life without human contact isn't worth living, and it takes more than some nasty germs to shatter civilization, at least as long as we remain civil to each other. If you want to live in fear, go home, shut your windows and turn on Fox News.